A Reactive Protagonist Doesn't Have to Be a Passive Protagonist! Discover the Difference

A Reactive Protagonist Doesn’t Have to Be a Passive Protagonist! Discover the Difference

One of the stickiest questions any writer is likely to face is: What’s the difference between a reactive protagonist and a passive protagonist?

Structuring Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel Workbook by K.M. WeilandIf you’ve been studying story structure with me, then you know I talk a lot about how your protagonist needs to be reactive in the first half of the book. But this idea causes a lot of writers to scratch their heads.

Because isn’t it true that you’re also told (like, all the time) that your protagonist should never be passive?

Isn’t reactive kinda like passive?

And, if so, doesn’t that mean that this passive/reactive protagonist is likely to sink the first half of your book, good story structure or no good story structure?

Good questions, all. So let’s examine the differences between the reactive protagonist (yay!) and the passive protagonist (boo!).

What Is a Reactive Protagonist–and Why Does Your Story Need One?

The first half of your story is all about your protagonist being off-balance. The First Plot Point at the end of the First Act forces him out of his Normal World and into the adventure world of the Second Act. From there, he’s going to spend the next quarter of the story–right up until the Midpointreacting to everything that has just happened to him. What does this mean?

The Reactive Protagonist Is

  • Off-Balance

I like to visualize the First Plot Point as something that comes along and physically smacks the protagonist. It literally knocks him off-balance. Some First Plot Points might fling him completely off his feet; others might only make him trip. But he’s shaken up. He’s scrambling to not just regain his feet, but to figure out what just hit him. He’s reacting. He’s not the one who did the hitting; he’s the one who got hit. And now he has to compensate in some way.

  • Not in Control of the Conflict

This is probably the most important thing to understand about the reactive protagonist. His reactivity is almost solely the result of the fact that he is not the one who is controlling the conflict. The antagonistic force is firmly in control at this point. Stuff is happening to the protagonist, and he can’t stop it. He can’t even properly combat it, because his balance is compromised. To add to our visual image, it’s like he’s being pelted with rocks while he’s still trying to get back to his feet after that mighty whump at the First Plot Point.

  • Not in Possession of a Complete Understanding of the Conflict and the Antagonistic Force

This one is also crucial. Not only is the protagonist not in control of the conflict, but he doesn’t even fully comprehend the conflict. He may not understand what’s happening to him at all or even how it might be possible (such as Wikus’s transformation in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9). At the least, he doesn’t understand why the antagonist is getting in his way or what the antagonist’s motives may be. And he most definitely doesn’t yet understand enough about the conflict to know what the antagonist’s next move might be.

A Reactive Protagonist Doesn't Have to Be a Passive Protagonist! Discover the Difference

  • Not in Possession of a Complete Understanding of Himself and His Own Motives

Particularly if your protagonist is following a change arc, he’s also going to be struggling to understand a lot of his own motives at this point in the story. He’s in the grip of the Lie–and his blindness about himself, just as much as is any other factor, is causing him to get smacked around during this part of the story.

The Reactive Protagonist Isn’t

  • Passive

You saw this one coming. Just because a protagonist is reacting doesn’t mean he’s passive. More on this in a sec.

  • Goal-less

This is key. Your protagonist may be reacting–he may not be in control of the conflict–he may not fully understand what’s going on. But he still wants something. He has a goal and he’s moving toward it, or at least protecting his ability to move toward it later. In Steve Miner’s Forever Young, protagonist Danny McCormick is in a totally reactive position when he wakes up after being frozen for fifty years, but he always has the very clear goal of finding his friend and figuring out what happened to him.

A Reactive Protagonist Doesn't Have to Be a Passive Protagonist! Discover the Difference

  • Stupid

We sometimes equate passivity with stupidity. We see this dopey character who’s been knocked off his feet and is now being pelted with rocks–and he’s just sitting there, taking it. Well, if that’s what your character is doing, then he is passive and he is pretty stupid. But a reactive character is doing something: he’s trying to regain his feet, he’s trying to shield himself from the rocks. And even if he’s not being too successful at it yet, that’s most definitely not stupid.

  • Defeated

Passivity is also often equated with defeat–and rightfully so. That dopey character who’s just sitting there taking a beating would only be doing that if he’s already given up. But your character is reacting, he’s not passive, and he’s definitely not defeated.

What Is a Passive Protagonist–and Why Doesn’t Your Story Need One

Story by Robert McKeeJust by exploring what a good reactive character is and isn’t, we already have a pretty decent idea of what a passive character must be. In Story, Robert McKee writes:

…the truly passive protagonist is a regrettably common mistake. A story cannot be told about a protagonist who doesn’t want anything, who cannot make decisions, whose actions effect no change at any level.

The passive protagonist is one who either has no goal–or is making no effort to achieve his goal. If your character spends most of his time staring out the window or observing as other people do things, that’s a good sign he’s lapsed into passivity. Always ask yourself:

  • What does my protagonist want in the overall story?
  • What does he want in this scene?
  • What he is doing to try to achieve it?

If the answer to any of these is nothing, then you know he’s not reactive, he’s passive. Say goodbye to passive protagonists and let them start reacting instead!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you ever worry your protagonist is passive? What steps have to taken to avoid this?

A Reactive Protagonist Doesn't Have to Be a Passive Protagonist! Discover the Difference

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Hello, Miss Weiland.This is Kushal, a young(13 year old) writer from India.I would like to ask you a question:

    My recent short story: You are Kevin, a teenager.You wake up and find yourself in an unlikely house you’ve never been in before.You explore it and find a mysterious large box, and nothing else.When you try to look in, mistakenly, you fall in.But when you find that this box dosen’t have an end, this is an endless fall, you’re scared. Inside you find a land which pertains your finest Roald-Dahl characters! But when you find that Roald Dahl himself has been kidnapped by his very own antagonist he himself created, you want to help them.In the end, you somehow defeat the antagonist and save the king.

    Now,my question: As mentioned in “Structuring Your Novel”, every
    scenne should conantain conflict, but does mine have? Please reply.( This story got All Country rank-3 chosen by Scholastic India)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your story sounds fabulous! The key to understanding conflict is that conflict is nothing more or less than an obstacle getting in the way of the character accomplishing his goal. As long as your character has a clear goal in every scene–and something is occurring to interfere with that goal–then you’re doing great!

      • Joe Long says:

        With a romance, I was wondering about the antagonist – but I appreciate what you said here. My story has the obstacles, one of which is the emotional issues/baggage of the protagonist, much of which stem from the verbal abuse by Dad (and Dad’s still there, dishing it out.) I reckon then the “Lie” is that this is the way he’ll always be.

        • Joe Long says:

          that was unclear language – “The Lie is that the protagonist will believe he can never change”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I generally prefer the term “antagonistic force” since it removes the implication that the antagonist must be a person. The key to understanding conflict is realizing that the antagonist is whatever *obstacle* stands between the protagonist and his goal. Very often, that obstacle will be a person (or an object put into play by a person), but it definitely doesn’t have to be.

    • James Ronnie Green says:

      Yes, the scene obviously has conflict because the protagonist must fight with the villain to save the king, and, presumably, author Roald Dahl and Dahl’s protagonist and supporting characters

  2. Louis Wilberger says:

    Absolutely spot on about Reactive vs Passive. In my novel, the protagonist is trying to right a wrong. Someone stole her dead brother’s manuscript and published it in his name. She has not idea the guy is a petty crook and is semi connected. When she takes an action his counter action is often violent, but if she is to reach her goal she has to keep chipping away. The closer she gets the more dire the consequences, until at the end when she subdues him and the police take him away. She is either active or reactive, but never passive.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Chipping away” is a good phrase in this instance. In the first half, the protagonist *will* definitely make progress against the antagonist. It’s just that that progress is so uninformed that it’s more a slow drip than anything else.

  3. I struggle with this problem right now. My protagonist in the first half of story is a big fan of antagonist, and only in the middle discovers that he is the bad guy. I had to revise the original plan because it appeared that almost all the first half protagonist just sat and observed antagonist being cool.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’ve planned your protagonist’s revelation about the antagonist just right: at the Midpoint. Just make sure your protag has a clear goal in the first half. Impressing the antagonist perhaps?

  4. A very helpful post, KM. So if this is the case for the first half of the book, can we then assume that the “rules” for putting together the second half of the book are: the protagonist adjusts to the new situation (gains balance); the protagonist takes action (gains control over the conflict–is now acting instead of just reacting); the protagonist learns the truth about what’s actually happening to him and gains understanding of the antagonistic force that’s hounding him; and the protagonist starts to understand himself and what he truly does need to be happy in the end?

  5. I don’t usually think in these terms — reactive/passive — but it’s a very useful concept, K.M.W. I tend to see the ‘reactive’ protagonist as one who is operating by a belief system that he/she is unaware of. So, it’s always an unconscious reaction. The character arc would take him to an understanding that the belief system is not going to help him get what he wants. In fact, it will most certainly prevent him from his/her ultimate satisfaction. Regarding the passive character — he can always be made to suffer as far as a realization that his passivity is a belief system that is killing him. Authors like Anita Brookner write such “passive” characters, but it’s an acquired taste, to be sure.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like that distinction a lot: reactive character operating on an unconscious belief system (usually a wrong one). The change from reactive to active at the Midpoint is all about the character facing a major revelation about the story’s Lie/Truth, so it’s definitely also a switch from unconscious to conscious.

  6. thomas h cullen says:

    Kevin Feige. Moses Akatugba. Don Dixon. Helen White. Burt Young. Green Yu. Jhang Cadet College attendee. John Campea. David Cameron. Tulcea Kitten, Marlene. Lindsay Schoneweis. Elizabet Liendro (San Joaquin resident). Florence Gesmundo. Mustapekka supermarket employee (Finland). Ibrahim Mohammed. Michael Crompton (London construction worker). Veena Malik. Paris Hilton. Ellie Cornell..

    I have said before, many times, that because fiction doesn’t get any better than The Representative (the greatest story ever told), I wouldn’t write any more of it. But, I can write this.. another world’s greatest text!

    Lists, and lists of people, all across the globe: people worldwide, who will never talk to and interact with one another.

    I’ll pair these people together – and then this’ll hopefully be the text that changes the world.

  7. You did an excellent job of helping everyone discern the difference between a Reactive Protagonist and a Passive one. I prefer the reactive protagonist and can think of a few real life examples form history, if I’m not mistaken.

    Consider the United States on December 7, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor blindsided the leaders of our government but our response was anything but passive. We responded. We reacted to the provocation and did so through battle after battle but in the end, we persevered and were victorious. I think we can see other examples where our leadership proved passive.

  8. I used to struggle with this, knowing that the protagonist needed to be reactive, but being unclear about what that looked like. It was actually your blog that helped me to see the distinction. In a story I’m working on now, my protagonist has to take a lot of action in order to pursue his goal, but he’s doing without a clear understanding of what he’s up against. Once he understands what he’s up against, he’ll move from reactive to proactive.

    Another great post.

  9. Seeing the structure of the First Act put into these terms really helps me see that my story does, in fact, have a First Act–something I was worrying about, because I felt like I didn’t have a structure that was solid enough. The analogy of the protagonist shielding himself from the stones and trying to get back up really made sense! I’m much less worried about my story now that I see that I can pin down where my plot points are, even if they might not be spaced in the typical ‘thirds’ way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! The awesome thing about structure is that provides us the direction and solidity of knowing when we’re on the right track – or when we’re not. :p

  10. “Always ask yourself:

    What does my protagonist want in the overall story?

    What does he want in this scene?

    What he is doing to try to achieve it?

    If the answer to any of these is nothing, then you know he’s not reactive, he’s passive. Say goodbye to passive protagonists and let them start reacting instead!”

    —————————————————-
    A very clear summary of answer that I’ve been looking for this several months. I’m struggling with a SF story in which the main character seems to lost his ability to create a meaningful scene. And here is the answer! I left him to follow the flow of the story without letting him being reactive to what happens around him.

    Good article.

    Thanks 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The great thing is that scenes in which the character wants something are always more fun to write. So have fun!

  11. So, I know this post is a couple of months old, but I just found it (and your other wonderfully helpful posts) through the Writer Unboxed Facebook group… If you’re able to answer my question, awesome. If not, I’ll understand that it’s an old post.
    Through your other first act posts, I’ve learned that the inciting incident in my fantasy is what sends my character into the dungeon, and the key point is when she’s rescued. But, there’s a year of happenings in between. She’s stuck. She certainly can’t be proactive, and there’s only so much reactive she can be.
    Or, is she reactive to the few visitors she gets, either bringing her more hope or more despair? Can a scene goal be to give up the overall goal, and then her reaction when the ring won’t come off?
    Her very last journal entry is very depressed, but then the rescue comes, along with all the pelting rocks of adventure…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site!

      First off, let me clarify a few things just to make sure we’re on the same page.

      The Inciting Event occurs halfway through the First Act (at around the 12% mark). It is the character’s first brush with the conflict.

      The Key Event and the First Plot Point are two halves of the same whole, both happening around the 25% mark at the end of the First Act. The Key Event is the moment the character leaves the Normal World of the First Act, and the First Plot Point is the moment she enters the “adventure world” of the Second Act. (Sometimes the Key Event and the First Plot Point are so closely related as to be almost inextricable. More in this post.)

      Strictly speaking, the period of *reaction* for the character happens in the First Half of the Second Act (from the 25%-50% mark). The Midpoint at the 50% mark is what launches the period of *action* (more on that in this post).

      So if I’m understanding you correctly, your character’s imprisonment happens between the Inciting Event and the Key Event (between the 12% mark and the 25% mark in your story). Although obviously your character is necessarily in a state of some reaction, this isn’t, strictly speaking, the kind of reaction I’m talking about in this post. In the period of the story you’re referring to, your character won’t yet have even encountered the main conflict of the story–that happens at the First Plot Point which ends the First Act and launches your character into the main conflict of the Second Act.

      However, all having said all that, you may also find the following post useful. It talks about a book I read with a very problematic series of scenes in which the protagonist was essentially imprisoned and therefore in a very passive role for a long stretch of the story: Find Out Why Your Awesome Protagonist Is Boring Readers to Death

  12. Hi K.M.! Thanks for the great advice! I know this is an old post, but if you get a chance, I’d love your input on this. I am writing a character who is an avoider. When something upsets him, he will do whatever it takes to not have to face it–lie, distract himself, convince himself it’s not such a big deal, whatever. This is an important aspect of both the plot and his character, and I don’t want to change it if I can help it. But I don’t want him to be a passive protagonist either, because I agree that they aren’t interesting characters.

    My protagonist does have wants and goals, but they aren’t always the wants or goals that are best for him because he is avoiding the real issues. He is often passive aggressive toward people he doesn’t like. Sometimes he is forced into facing something he tried to avoid. (That is being reactive, I think?) Around the midpoint he reluctantly starts to take some things he was avoiding more seriously and make some more direct goals, but he continues to struggle with his need to escape.

    Does this sound passive or reactive to you? It’s kind of weird because in some ways, passivity is an antagonist!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It all depends on how you present it in the story. Even someone who’s goal is to avoid something should still have an active plan *for* avoiding it. In other words, passivity is where the character avoids something by sitting around and ignoring it. An *active* avoidance is where he has an actual plan for escaping it–e.g., the student wants to avoid the principal, so he cooks up a scheme, based on the principal’s schedule, to always be in a different place from him, and then spends all day running around the school to keep out of the principal’s way.

      • That’s a great point! Avoidance is not the same as passiveness. You can actively avoid or passively avoid. I’ll make sure to go for active avoidance. Thank you!

        I’ve followed you on Twitter and I’ll be watching your blog. I appreciate your sharing your wisdom!

  13. My protagonist is trying to help people by fighting crime, and often reacts to situations that she isn’t in control of, but, yeah. Bella from Twilight was a bit of a whiner in my mom’s eyes-especially around her birthday and throughout New Moon. Someone said that whining isn’t an attractive trait in anybody-including your characters.

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